Book Review: Vaganova Today

6 Feb

Book Review

Pawlick, Catherine E., Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition
Gainesville Fl, University Press of Florida, 2011,  201 pp, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-8130-3697-7

The name Vaganova usually fills the ballet lover with suitable respect.  The noted pedagogue’s name recurs regularly during a ballet competition when the Diane and Acteon pas de deux is performed, whether as one of the two variations or by an ambitious couple.

Any mention of schooling in a dancer’s biography leads to the fundamental expectation of purity and possibly virtuosity.  I remember Julia Vershbinsky telling me that her daughter Asya was one of six girls selected for study at that St. Petersburg institution out of several thousand – I venture six – but my memory is not that accurate.  But it gives one some notion just how lucky a child is when selected.

So it’s hardly surprising that Catherine Pawlick would be drawn to explore the school, its teachers and system as it existed when she started an interesting career in translation in that most elegant of Russian cities, the northern capital hewn from marshes by Peter the Great.

As Pawlick explains in the Preface, her initial exposure to the Vaganova syllabus was as an exchange student.  Duly impressed with the purity of the system under the Soviet regime, she returned to Russia in 2003 she made the decision to return to St. Petersburg to live in 2004, spending six years immersing herself in its ballet world, writing and interviewing members of the Institute; absorbing the structure and subtle ambiance inevitable with such a legacy of rigorous training and extraordinary artistic accomplishment.

Following the Preface with an impressive list of individuals in Acknowledgments she provides the reader with a Chronology of the Vaganova Institute, beginning in 1737 with Jean Lande,  the first French ballet master in St. Petersburg, requesting permission to open a ballet academy, and May 4, 1738 when Anna Ivanova signed a decree opening the “Dancing School of Her Highness.” This beginning was reorganized in 1779 forming the Imperial Theatre School, mandated to prepare dancers, musicians and actors.  [Compare the date: the British North American colonies were immersed in the American Revolution.]

Pawlick follows with a chronology of Agrippina Vaganova’s life, with its surprising credits for having served as artistic director of the Kirov, 1932-1937 when The Flames of Paris, and The Fountains of Bakshchsirai entered the repertoire.  Restagings included Swan Lake and Esmeralda, the latter providing the Diane and Aceton pas de deux has become such a staple.

Also during this time, her Basic Principles of Classic Ballet was published, which was published in English in New York by Kamin’s Book Store and translated by Anatole Chujoy with a red paperback cover and spiral binding if memory serves. Truly, Vaganova was a formidable contributor to the classic tradition which many of us today revere and extoll.

To return to the book’s format, following the Chronologies and Preface, it constitutes three sections: Vaganova, the Dancer [pages 5-28]; Vaganova, the Teacher [pages 29-74]; and Vaganova Today: Her Students pages 75-178] before Pawlick’s Conclusion.

A well-documented history of Vaganova includes comments about Olga Preobrajenska and her teaching methods, not only by Vaganova but visitors to Paris from Russia and by George Zoritch, a Preobrajenska student devoted to her memory.  As a strict classicist, Vaganova was ill suited to Fokine’s romantic approach; this prevented her from joining the dancers of the Diaghilev company either at its inception or with the four dancers, including Balanchine and Danilova, who left to tour Germany the summer of 1924 and never returned.  A further restriction on her career, Vaganova believed, was the lack of influential patronage.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Vaganova’s position after the Russian Revolution was not an easy transition, again mostly because of the hierarchy briefly remaining in St. Petersburg where Vera Trifilova was preeminent. In the text Konstastin  Sergeyev also explains the pros and cons which raged in the ‘Twenties artistically and classical ballet was not immune to controversy. It seems clear that the fact Vaganova never enjoyed the status her talent deserved . Lacking aristocratic or royal patronage provided her with opportunity under the Communist regime. Making do in the interval with other schools her diary records as awful, following Trifilova’s departure, Vaganova was invited to teach children’s classes because of her love of the school and “her irreproachable professionalism.”

Part of Vaganova’s success can be attributed to her ability to analyse her own physical difficulties with the classical syllabus. this enabled her to spot problems in students and to provide corrections and approaches to overcome the challenge of this most rigorous training.  The pictures opposite pages 25 and 33 give the reader some idea of Vaganova’s strength and commanding presence. A contemporary equivalent, though quite different, might  be Martine Van Hamel whose road to principal with American Ballet Theatre was singularly rigorous.

At the same time, Vaganova emulated Olga Preobrajenska’s approach to the students assigned her with equally reverential results.  Students were treated with respect and corrections were gentle though firm.  “Preo’s” student believed in training the entire body; I think this to mean she wanted a dancer to move as herself with the classical technique developed upon the intrinsic body style; this is something one can see clearly in a dancer, whether moving a trained body or the
technique pasted on.

The praise showered upon Vaganova’s pedagogical efforts are uniformly high with lavish, though discerning comments from Pyotor Gusev, Konstatin Sergeyev, and Fyodor Lubukhov as well as Ludmilla Blok and Nikolai Ivanovsky.
Opinions about her tenure as artistic director of the Kirov Ballet do differ, particularly when Vaganova opted for more naturalistic and expressive gestures
rather than traditional mime.  Lubukhov chides her for reorganizing the Diana
and Acteon pas de deux in Esmeralda, citing the role of a satyr danced by Georgy Kyasht with a conflict including a young Vaslav Nijinsky, a section Vaganova excised from the ballet; it had included Anna Pavlova in the Petipa production.

Reaching Vaganova Today: Her students, it is further divided.  First is
the Role of Pedagogue.  This describes a former dancer who received the full nine years of training in the academy, received a diploma, danced in a professonal Russian theatre and completed the Vaganova’s Academy graduate program for pedagogues, roughly a four year process.  Completing this course enables the dancer to coach other dancersin the theatre or to teach in the Academy.  This rigorous process still allows for performance.  Until recently, no individual trained in another academy or school was permitted, although individuals setting ballets for the repertoire are permitted in to stage the given work.

Pawlick then provides lengthy quotes from dancers turned pedagogues
either who remember Vaganova or who have come through the system and exemplify the tradition.  It is amazing and singular just how many of the individual teachers speak almost identical phrases.  This repetition, Pawlick commented to me, was nothing of her doing.  She interviewed the individuals separately and on a one-to-one basis.  Such is the veneration which existed at the time of Pawlick’s research and at a time when Altenai Assylmuratova was directing the Academy.

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